Just days before a new city council gets down to work for the first time, Burlington Democrats managed to ruffle the feathers of two other political factions over their decision to hire a budget analyst.
Last night, City Council President Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5) emailed councilors, and the media, about recent talks he and several members of the Democratic caucus have had with George Cross, a former Democratic lawmaker, school superintendent and city manager.
The idea is to have as many council members as possible kick in up to $10,000 to pay Cross to help the council review the annual budget prepared by the mayor's office. Cross would likely only work part-time for three months, Keogh said.
Earlier this year the city issued a request for proposals to take on the budget work for the council and no one responded. With a new council about to be seated and a new budget to review within a matter of weeks, Keogh approached Cross.
"This isn't a Democratic plan. We want this to be non-partisan," Keogh told Seven Days. "We want him to be available to everyone. We also know this is all new stuff for the council, but we've got to get a new set of eyes and ears on the budget and get us some assistance."
That may be true, but Cross told Seven Days that up until recently he had only met with members of the Democratic caucus and was under the impression he was being hired solely by the Democrats.
"The discussion to date has revolved around working for the Democratic caucus. It was my understanding that other councilors would be asked if they were interested in participating," Cross said. He said no formal agreement is in place, and said any deal was "quite a way off still."
But, having only one caucus — albeit the largest one — work on such an important issue without telling the rest of the council bothers Councilor-elect Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4), who is returning to the council after a one-year hiatus.
"If no one responded to the RFP, then they should have come to the full council and said, 'OK, what do we do now?' You can't have it just be Bill and a few Democrats working outside the normal process and saying they have someone willing to do the work under certain conditions and not explain anything further about what those conditions are, or how much they are to be paid, and asking the rest of us to help pay for him," said Wright.
In his email to councilors, Keogh said a contract was in the works, and told his colleagues via email that Councilor Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) — who has also met with Cross — is the point person in talks with Cross.
"Also, it is important for George to work with a small handful of Councilors as possible in his dealings with the Council. Perhaps the best way, is to have each Caucus appoint a representative to work with him. His reports will be public documents and that he will report to the Council on his work," Keogh wrote to his colleagues. "Each Councilor has a budgeted expense item and may/may not contribute to this effort, either whole or in part. Increased Councilor participation will allow him to spend more time on our behalf."
In the past week, Cross has met with Keogh and Shannon, along with Councilors Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4), David Berezniak (D-Ward 2) and Councilor-elect Bram Kranichfeld (D-Ward 2).
The secretive nature of the interviews with Cross didn't sit well with Councilor-elect Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) and Councilor-elect Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (P-Ward 3). Republicans will hold three seats when the council is officially seated on Monday, while the Progressives will hold two (down from three on the current council). The two remaining seats on the 14-member council are held by independents. Democrats will have seven seats on the council.
Mulvaney-Stanak had only briefly read Keogh's memo this morning, but she said it raised immediate concerns.
"At first blush it appears that Bill and other Democrats have made this connection without involving other councilors. I think this points to a pattern of Democrats acting on behalf of the whole council without notifying and including folks," said Mulvaney-Stanak, who did serve on the previous council until December, when she resigned after moving out of Ward 2. "This was done with the attorney they hired in the past. I need to look at it more, but I am cautious about any group of councilors acting on our behalf without a full conversation or authorization by the full council."
Last year, Democratic city councilors pooled together about $10,000 to hire an outside attorney, raising eyebrows from their colleagues. That hiring occurred after a group of previous councilors worked with the Kiss administration to secure an extra allotment of money to hire a budget analyst for the entire council.
When a request for proposal process did not get issued in time, no one was hired and the money remained. Rather than return it to the city coffers, the Democrats opted to hire an attorney. That attorney has been used sparingly since last year, in part to review documents related to Burlington Telecom.
Wright said he has no problem with Cross, per se, but when the seven-member Democratic caucus proposes hiring a well-known former Democratic state representative, there should also be sure that the proper process is followed.
"Bill said this is a non-partisan process, but I don't see how you can say that when no one else was in those meetings or consulted," said Wright. "I'm actually stunned that after the whole thing of last year that you wouldn't learn the lesson and not repeat the same mistake.
"If we can't get together and work on this, how can we work as a functioning body?" added Wright.
The whole concept of hiring an outside budget analyst to support the entire council was actually the brainchild of Wright and several other councilors. The issue arose several years ago during a council retreat, where they identified issues the whole council needed to address — one was staffing, not just to support each political caucus, but the council as a whole.
Democrat Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) has been perhaps the most vocal in arguing for a standalone, full-time, year-round nonpartisan staff — akin to the joint fiscal office and legislative council staff in Montpelier — who would work with councilors on drafting resolutions and research. To date, the council has only been able to wrangle an additional stipend in the budget, with plans to pool it to hire one, or two, nonpartisan support staff on a part-time basis to help with the budget.
Cross, a former school superintendent and state representative, was chairman of the House Education Committee. Last year, Cross was hired by his hometown of Winooski to act as interim city manager after the city fired its manager.
"George is experienced, knows the budgetary process, is familiar with government and knows the questions to ask at the right time," Keogh told his colleagues via email. "This is an opportunity. Let’s seize it."